A new generation of African-American leadership in this country ought to avoid praise for one of the old icons, Marion Barry, the four-term former mayor of Washington, D.C.
Barry died at 78, still a member of the city council of the city he ruled poorly for many years. He is most famous, naturally, for one night in 1990 when he was caught on video lighting a crack pipe in an FBI sting operation.
There is a cautionary story in his life, and it goes beyond the outsized personality — like that of Louisiana’s own Gov. Edwin W. Edwards — that people naturally associated with flamboyance and excess.
The praise of President Barack Obama started out right: “Marion was born a sharecropper’s son, came of age during the civil rights movement and became a fixture in D.C. politics for decades,” the president said. “As a leader with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Marion helped advanced the cause of civil rights for all.”
But it’s ludicrous to accept at face value the president’s comment on a lurid life of not only self-indulgence but political and managerial misrule in office: “During his decades in elected office in D.C., he put in place historic programs to lift working people out of poverty, expand opportunity and begin to make real the promise of home rule.”
What Barry did was discredit home rule. His name was synonymous with corruption, as The Associated Press listed some of the best-known episodes: In recent years, he had been cited or censured for failing to file tax returns, steering a government contract to a former girlfriend and accepting cash gifts from city contractors.
The city went into a federal receivership in his last term after decades of patronage politics and petty feuds. In a predominantly white ward that didn’t vote for Barry, the garbage might pile up for weeks as punishment. Public institutions of the District of Columbia were a mess and principally benefited Barry cronies or unions seeking to expand payrolls.
“Under Barry, a school system in which black schools in the old days had sometimes outperformed white ones was a catastrophe with leaders who couldn’t even specify how many students were enrolled,” recalled John McWhorter in The New Republic. “HUD rated its housing projects the nation’s worst in the 1990s. Governmental staffing was bloated at rates that beggared disbelief: One city nursing home had 300 staffers caring for 28 people.”
Barry was nothing if not an enthusiast. He embraced socialism as a student angry at repression in the South. But after those glory days, he ruled D.C. as if it were a socialist paradise — and the jokes about bad services in the old Soviet Union applied in full to the district. He was not entirely a failure, but unaccountable government and one-party Democratic rule in the district was a disaster.
If Barry is to be remembered, it should be for the old days at the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. And for the younger generation of black leaders in this country, he should be an example in office not to be applied. Performance and accountability, the governmental qualities that Mayor-for-Life Barry did not have, are the modern standard.